Eye on KELOLAND: Volunteers make up over 90% of SD firefighters


FREEMAN, S.D. (KELO) — About 97 percent of fire departments in South Dakota are made up entirely of volunteers.

These every day heroes go through all of the same training as paid firefighters while also balancing jobs that pay the bills.

Being a firefighter, whether for a career or as a volunteer, is not an easy job.

“The best part is probably the satisfaction of, ya know, on several occasions we’ve saved a life. That makes you feel good. Probably the saddest part is when you lose somebody. And we have in the past lost some children and we did go through, we lost one fireman one year in a house fire. That’s tough on people,” Donald E. Johnson, Valley Springs Fire Chief, said.

When Johnson isn’t wearing his fire gear, he’s runs his own mechanic shop.

“For me it’s probably not as hard as it is for many people because back in the day when we first started, a lot of the businesses would let the guys go if we had a fire during the day or something like that,” Johnson said.

Career firefighters and volunteers, like Johnson, must go through the same training. The main differences: paychecks and shifts.

“Take any small town, the volunteer fire department is made up of anybody and any occupation.”

Freeman fire chief cody fransen

“The career individuals, we run our twenty-four hour shift, when they’re done they go home for twenty-four hours. Volunteers, they’re on twenty-four hours all the time,” Charlie Kludt, President of the Firefighter’s Association, said.

Every firefighter has to take one hundred and twenty hours of training along with on-going training within their specific departments.

“For training, we train once a month and it’s usually on our meeting nights. We do business tours, we do training here at the station,” Cody Fransen, Freeman fire chief, said.

Out of the 337 fire departments in South Dakota, 325 of them are just volunteer departments while seven of them have a combination of both paid firefighters and volunteer. For those volunteers, they have to learn all of their training while also learning to balance their everyday, normal lives and jobs with being a volunteer firefighter.

“Take any small town, the volunteer fire department is made up of anybody and any occupation. You may have the school teachers, you may have the local businessman, you may have the local banker. We’re made up of anybody in town that is willing to participate and goes through the training and has the time to do it,” Kludt said.

Charlie Kludt is not only the President of the Firefighter’s Association, he’s a volunteer firefighter in Viborg and works three other jobs.

“Balancing that with family and job, not every job allows the volunteer to be able to leave that. The local businessman may not be able to close his doors and respond to a fire all the time,” Kludt said.

Cody Fransen’s paying job is with the city of Freeman.

“Most businesses in town are pretty good about the volunteers that we have that if there’s a call just drop what you’re doing and take off and go. It’s nice for the community that the businesses are willing to allow their employees to just up and leave when a call comes in to help somebody else,” Fransen said.

Josh Andersen is another volunteer in Freeman, but he is also a career firefighter at the Sioux Falls airport.

“Whether you’re paid or a volunteer, you’re doing the same tasks as far as putting the fire out so there’s not a lot of differences other than just the shift work,” Andersen said.

However, the men and women who take on the task of being volunteer firefighters don’t see it as anything out of the ordinary.

“We’re just everyday people like everybody else, it’s just we’ve taken the time off to get some training and try to help the people in town and protect them,” Andersen said.

Of the 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, over 800,000 of them are volunteers.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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